Thursday, November 10, 2011

Defending Sorkin, Studio 60 and even LeBron

An NBA play-by-play guy that can’t bridge his league’s labor gap, uses the time instead to address the Aaron Sorkin gap

(An excerpt of this piece was first published on Grantland on November 9, 2011)

I am a mark for Aaron Sorkin, an unabashed fan.  Let me start there.

 I have memorized West Wing speeches, burned out my Sports Night DVD, Googled all the dirt on his upcoming HBO show taking on cable news,  unapologetically cribbed from him on and off the air and I know lines from a Few Good Men.  And not just the Jack Nicholson ones.  Keifer Sutherland, Noah Wylie, Kevin Pollack lines.

But I have a friend, who apparently, can’t handle that truth. 

Over the years we’ve Billy Hunter-David Stern’d any number of topics, most of them rueful missteps by the Celtics in the draft.  The role of the WNBA, Sarah Silverman’s place on the all-time greatest comedians list, the undeniable career intertwine of Shawn Michaels and Michael Jordan and true story, we’ve spent more time on the inconsistent timelines of the Rocky sequels and his son’s magic growth spurt after the Drago fight, than Stallone spent writing Rocky V.

Actually chances are, much more.

But this is what guys do, happily waste colossal amounts of time arguing.

It’s deeply engrained in our DNA. 

And as we’ve seen these last four months, in our NBA as well.
But unlike the well-stocked conference rooms of the Waldorf-Astoria and the all-night, geek-rave dance parties that the NBA labor negotiations have become, the math here is a lot less fuzzy.

Sports.  Food.  Girls.   Beer.

These are the four basic food groups that sustain any male relationship.  And the reason, other than the obvious that, you know, what else is there?  The hidden reason, is that they all spawn the true bond.

The art of the never-ending, unwinnable argument.

Of course that could also apply to BRI, the Luxury Tax and the mid-level exception.  But that unwinnable argument fails the following test.
Guys will argue about anything as long as it sounds like sports radio. 

Here’s how I know.

My Sorkin jag, which wavers between aficionado and zealot, has remained a constant, unwinnable argument for us. 
Last week, at an ungodly hour of the morning I’m quickly learning accompanies parenthood, he texts me a link to a story bashing Studio 60 (",63985/), Sorkin’s ill-fated dram-edy that lasted a single-season.

A single season four years ago.
Four and half years ago, to be exact.
The article?  It was published last week.  1,581 days after the last episode aired.

1,581 days is a Presidential term, an NBA rookie contract, 22 Kardashian marriages.  It’s three and two-thirds innings of a John Lackey start.  It’s a very long time.

Studio 60 is the BRI of our unwinnable Sorkin argument.  And we remain miles apart on it. 

See, as an NBA employee, unwinnable arguments are ruling my life at the moment.  For most the NBA lockout has been a source of mild frustration, mild amusement, or somewhat more-than-mild farcical comedy.  But me?  Yeah, I have a full year’s salary riding on the next few days.  Riding on a process that’s featured both Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert -- who made his money in this generation’s ultimate pariah of predatory businesses, selling mortgages -- telling Billy Hunter and the players to “trust me”, and the players countering by handing the very delicate diplomacy of the negotiations to their most level-headed, compromise-seeking diplomat, Kevin Garnett.

The Cavs won’t win a championship before LeBron, but they certainly will before any of the players trust Gilbert.  And putting Garnett in a position to negotiate labor peace was like putting the Hell’s Angels in charge of security at Altamont.  (1)

So as I sit here, waiting for Paul Allen to fly-in to the latest round of labor talks on some Microsoft hover-craft and destroy any optimism that the two sides have spent hours building, I suppose I’m left with some time to wonder why.   Why do people still want to fight about Studio 60? Why is a show that so many people consider Sorkin’s epic-fail, still the topic of articles about said failure all this time later?  And doesn’t the fact that people won’t let the show die make it, well, kind of not a failure?  (2)   


Studio 60 was Sorkin’s much-anticipated and heavily-promoted return to network television in 2006, three years after his even more heavily-talked about departure from the West Wing franchise he created. (3)  When that dust-up finally settled, Sorkin, as has been his pattern to become intensely interested in a subject and then writing about it, settled on Saturday Night Live, and its weekly environs as a suitable sequel to the Oval Office.

Remember of course, that back  in 2006 there still existed a faint, whimsical notion that you could write a scripted, fictional television show and people would watch, rather than simply pointing a camera at Snooki in the hopes she throws up on someone.   Situation comedy as opposed to unintentional comedy of the Situation. (4)

After near unanimity of praise for the pilot, it took virtually no time before critics, and the intensely-growing volume and impact of the blogsphere were tearing it down.  After 11 episodes there was a hiatus…then a schedule change…some dramatic and questionable plot twists…the always deadly hiatus-combined-with-schedule-change that saw ratings plummet and eventually, despite the rumors of HBO (where it could have had the Mad Men/Breaking Bad grow-into-itself lifespan) or another network coming to the rescue, that Bobby Simone feeling that there’s no way the patient is going to survive. (5)

In the days that followed, apparently all 1,581 of them, the Sorkin bashing seemed to shift from random torpedoes to borderline LeBron-coming-up-short-in-the-Finals glee. 

These were the arguments….

If it was so good, why was it cancelled after one year?

There are no shortage of reasons. Was it “too smart” for the audience? Maybe.  Was Monday night during the football season the best place to start it? Likely not.  Did the simultaneous debut of an underdog 30 Rock with an eminently more likable public face, and de facto Bizarro-Sorkin Tina Fey, create an ER/Chicago Hope vortex in which only one could survive?  Possibly. Was the basic premise of a drama about a comedy show too intricate for 21st Century network television, content to have Chaz Bono foxtrot?  Probably too complex a question for someone who primary training is in memorizing football two-deeps and correctly pronouncing “medial collateral ligament” on the fly.

But I do know that television tenure is a complicated formula into which quality doesn’t always factor.   Arrested Development was on life-support from day one, not sure there’s ever been a better ensemble comedy.  Dabney Coleman never needed Ted McGinley to curse one of his shows, they never seemed to survive the first year.   And oh by the way, Family Guy?  Cancelled after nearly three years of Studio 60-like schedule changes before it was brought back from the dead. 

I’m also pretty sure each episode was Albert Pujols-expensive with Carl Crawford-value for NBC.  The cost of one of those guest stars alone could green light about six seasons of Robot Chicken.

It wasn’t a realistic portrayal of a late-night comedy TV show…

Really?  This is our concern. The realism of a prime-time network show? 

I worked in radio for a while right out of school.  And for most of those mid-90’s years, I’d watch as every time Frasier Crane and Roz finished their radio show, they just got up and left the room.  As if the station just magically kept running without anyone operating it like the Airplane blow-up auto-pilot doll.   I never saw a bloggisist point that out. (6)  Carrie Bradshaw lived in Manhattan and went clubbing every night in $500 shoes on a newspaper columnists’ salary.   I’ve spent half my life in Boston.  Go ahead, walk into any bar.  They don’t know your name, they don’t want to know your name.

But the most prevalent argument against the show, is also the most revealing.  That the pretend sketches, on the pretend show, weren’t funny.  Now, what is and is not funny is of course on the same unwinnable argument plane as Pepsi-Coke, and you say potato. But I would happily defend the Nancy Grace sketch where she frantically treats the lost cell phone of a college spring breaker with the same wild-eyed, unrelenting fervor as Casey Anthony, or Santa Claus climbing down the chimney of a little girl that wrote him a letter, and walking into a Dateline Catch a Predator episode, as beyond-realistic.  Most of the sketches were presented in a Thursday afternoon, rehearsal state context as backgrounds to other scenes, intentionally unpolished.  And were it my true intention to inflame this unwinnable argument, I’d catalog a similar lack of quality show-within-the-show-comedy sketches that have run on 30 Rock.  But after a shaky pilot episode that included a few of them, Tina Fey was smart enough to move the show away from the sketches.  But the 30 Rock apples-to-oranges side-by-side is the banana-in-the-tailpipe of the Studio 60 case, so let’s not fall for it.  It misses the point and causes severe overuse of hyphens.

Political wonks carved the West Wing on policy and procedural missteps.  But that didn’t resonate.  The exaggeration of the role of forensic evidence in solving crimes, the CSI effect, has its own Wikipedia page. (7)   And I’m sure True Blood gets taken to task every week on   

The unrealistic knock stuck to Studio 60, in the other  cases it just bounced off David Caruso’s shades.

Sure there’s a problem with Studio 60’s realism, and it applies to West Wing, Sports Night and beyond.   But it’s this.  People are quick-witted and fast talking in Sorkin-world.  They speak in complete, oftentimes elegant sentences.  Spend five minutes on the phone with any company’s branch of customer service and you’ll realize the sketches weren’t the unrealistic part, the speeches were.

I thought we watched television drama to escape our world.  Let’s celebrate that.

 In the West Wing alternate-universe, Sorkin’s President Bartlet placed a memorably comedic call from the Oval Office to the Butterball Hotline at Thanksgiving.  While the actual President at the time ignored urgent CIA memos and his VP shot a guy in the face.

I’ll take the escape.

The show went completely off the rails in the final few episodes. 

Again, I say to the 2011 Red Sox, thank you for being our guide.

Imagine what the final few weeks of that season, the final few weeks of that road house, Alex Karras-as-Mongo saloon of a clubhouse would have looked like if instead of being eliminated on the final night of the season, they’d been eliminated with 15 games to play.  It would have been Lord of the Flies in there.

Of course, the show was rushed at the end. Of course, once the one-and-done handwriting was on the wall, it felt like three seasons of storylines were crammed into the final few episodes of real estate.

At least he gave the fans of the show an ending.  I mean, he could have gone with a network executive walking into the room in a Members Only jacket and then just cut to black.

Sorkin’s ego made it a massive homage to himself. 


Let’s put to the side the fact that ego brings us pretty much everything piece of entertainment the atmosphere can absorb.  That behind every great movie, behind every great TV show, every great baseball trade, and every Terrell Owens reality show was someone who believed more in himself, than anyone else did.

Just as greed is good, ego is our creative friend.  When Tony LaRussa makes a pitching change, when Keith Olbermann begins a final thought, when Floyd Mayweather and Larry Merchant give us the best television moment of 2011…ego is the gateway drug.

Of course, Studio 60 is auto-biographical. The underlying tone of the underappreciated writer (and producer) coming back to “class up” a once-proud show is undeniable.  And yes, in Sorkin-world, the notion of the semi-geek writer as hero, with an exaggerated sense of his own import and outkicking his coverage with women is a common thread.  Even when Rob Lowe and Matt Perry aren’t playing the parts. (8)  The marvelous yet bespectacled and dweebish Joshua Malina lands the spectacular Sabrina Lloyd (Sports Night) and Mary McCormack (West Wing). But this is hardly unique to Sorkin.  Cameron Crowe’s 16-year old Almost Famous alter-ego competes with Billy Crudup’s rock star for the affection of Kate Hudson’s Penny Lane.  Is John Grisham made so much money romanticizing and hero-worshiping the role of the lawyer, I’m surprised protesters haven’t tried to occupy him.  Paul Giamatti and Ben Balaban didn’t play Mitch McDeere and Jack Brigance, Cruise and McConaughey did.  

Of course Matt Albie’s short-lived, 22-episode arc was drawn from real-life experiences.  The same way Seinfeld, Everyone Loves Raymond and the mother of all this-was-my-life and now I’m making a billion dollars off of it shows, Roseanne, were.  But apparently, only Sorkin’s auto-biographical prism trips the Humblebrag alarm.

Does Sorkin have a big ego?  I’ll take a wild stab and say yes.  Is he fascinated by megalomaniacal, status-chasing characters like Mark Zuckerburg and David Sarnoff? Yes.   If he were to show up in New York as a small market owner who writes all his scripts in Comic Sans would he fit right in? No doubt.

But most of us that end up in broadcasting, at some point, probably very, very early in life, had something go horribly wrong.  I mean, really, how ignored and needy must someone have been to need to grow up and get a job with a microphone where you’re essentially saying “listen to me, I’m talking!”

Point is, big ego?  Yeah, not really a deal-breaker for me


I’m not smart enough to know if Studio 60 was everything it could have been.  Actually, I am.  I’m sure that it wasn’t.  But I know it was great television.  It was smart, and funny and sharp and all Sorkin-bias aside, it was one of the great prime-time casts ever.  Period.  Brad Whitford, Matt Perry.  Big time players like Stephen Weber, D.L. Hughley and the extraordinarily well-educated Amanda Peet. (9) 

But the pilot grabs you, the early two-part “Nevada Day” is classic, the guest stars Ed Asner, John Goodman, Judd Hirsch made it feel big-time, the Christmas episode, a Sorkin hallmark from the West Wing run is a staple in my house every year. (10)  The Matt-Danny-Jordan dynamic of threesome dependence was different, I fell in love with Sarah Paulson’s Holly Hunter…

…and the writing was great.

That was more than enough.  That’s great television.

I reject the notion that a show that speaks its language in complete, graceful sentences.  That a show with a measure of intellect, makes you feel stupid.  Or maybe I’m too stupid to realize when I’m being called stupid, either way, entertain me, you can call me whatever you like.

But hey, decide for yourself, the beauty of its lifespan being cut so absurdly short, is that you can watch the whole series before a David Stern ultimatum runs out.  Or do what we all do.  YouTube the pilot and see if it grabs you in-between pop-up ads.

So what are we left with?  The real question, why, four and half years after its cancellation, are people still debating and dissecting and tearing down a show that lasted 22 episodes.  Why do all the characters have fake twitter accounts?  Accounts that have tweeted more words now than the characters themselves actually got to speak?

The answer is that it wasn’t the show, it was its creator.

People didn’t want to see Studio 60 fail, they wanted to see Aaron Sorkin fail.

By 2006, Sorkin was a star.  The rarest of breeds, the writer who’d escaped the behind-the-scenes, soul-crushing life of back rooms, notes from the network and getting your best stuff cut, and was now out in front.  How many writers of network shows and movies can you name off the top of your head?  Go ahead…I’ll wait.  (11)

So of course when the show hit the air, anyone who ever wanted to write a hit show, anyone that ever wanted to be a celebrity writer, anyone that ever wanted to be in front of the camera instead of behind it, had plenty of motive for dangling their hands angrily over the keyboard, waiting to hit send.  Doctors hate Doctor shows. Cops hate cop shows. Comedy writers are going to hate shows about comedy writers. (12)  If somewhere there are fat, animated guys that work at power plants, they’d probably blog about Homer Simpson’s emergency readiness and the fact that there would really never be a “sector 7-G”.

I cringe when Any Given Sunday comes on (which seems to be twice a week on FX, someone must have gotten a deal on it because it’s replaced Cocktail as the Movie Guaranteed to Be On Somewhere Right Now.)  Good movie, no question, but not only did Oliver Stone cast himself as the Miami Sharks play-by-play guy, he’s brutal.   The only other time I’ve been completely taken out of a film like that was Kevin Costner’s swing-and-a-miss run at a Boston Accent in 13 Days. (13)   What ego, I thought, to cast yourself in such a critical storytelling position and then butcher it.  The “boom goes the dynamite” kid thought wow, this guy’s weak.  Ever read an article about Oliver Stone’s play-by-play?  Ever seen a blog post about it?  Of course not.  Because I, and maybe a couple of dozen zealots with a collection of Red Barber books and best-of-Vin-Scully DVDs, were the only ones who took offense.

Those of us that call major league games, weren’t good enough to play.  And just like a lot of people who write, and there’s no better example than Sorkin, we didn’t get the girl in high school.  It’s probably what started them writing in the first place.  Do we naturally become guardians at the gate of the way our professionals are portrayed?  Will we take to the internet or the airwaves, or whatever podcast may be available to us to air that grievance?  Hell yes, because no one else will.

But piss off writers, and it’s on.  The blogsphere has a special fury for writers scorned.

So imagine setting a bar outrageously high, then lying in wait for the most celebrated performer in his genre to publicly fail on a huge, national stage.  Of course it was a setup.  Aaron Sorkin didn’t rent out the Boys and Girls Club of Connecticut to announce he was launching Studio 60.

But he may as well have.

And he learned what sports and pop culture have evolved into, and what Twitter has crystallized.

Snark is the new praise.  Or at the very least, the new Q rating.  And setting people up to fail, so that failure can be publicly celebrated is our new national pastime.  Simon Cowell bundled it with a black t-shirt to change television.

Easiest athlete to TweetSnark at right now? LeBron James.  I know, because I do it.  Some of the most retweeted, reaction-getting Tweets I’ve uneasily launched have been LeBron jokes.  And I’m the guy who in real life has been driving his bandwagon for years.  Want me to prove it again?  Fine, I’ll say it.   If he never plays another game, LeBron’s going to the hall-of-fame.  2-time MVP, 7-time All-Star, 2-time All-Star Game MVP.  The only player to score 20,000 points in 10 NBA seasons is George Gervin.  He’s the only one.  LeBron has a chance to get there this year in 9 (14).  When he wins a title…and he will win a title, it won’t matter…he’s already in.

And what if he does?  Will we still be TweetSnarking his failures?  Sorkin nailed Charlie Wilson’s War then won an Academy Award last year for the Social Network. And yet 1,581 days later, a fresh, new Studio 60 dissection is a Google Alert e-mail away. 

We kill Lebron, we bash Joe Buck, we boo John Cena and we trash Aaron Sorkin.

And these are the best guys we have.

The irony being he inordinate amount of time, the extraordinary amount of energy spent tearing down our most talented people when it seems like most of the time, they’re beyond capable of doing it themselves.    Sorkin’s been in rehab, last month broke his own nose and once got busted at the airport with enough drugs in his carry-on to supply the 1982 Pirates.  Darryl Strawberry and Doc Gooden are an ESPN Films “what if” waiting to be made.  I’ve idolized Billy Joel since the 4th grade, been blown away by his live shows, his virtuosity and a voluminous library of unparalleled literary and musical depth.  But he can’t drive to the bagel place without hitting a tree.

We can argue Studio 60.  We can argue Billy Joel vs. Bruce Springsteen. We can argue my unalterable stance that Tim McCarver is the best baseball-analyst ever. Yes, I said that too. (15)  We can argue all of the above.  But you won’t win.  And neither will I.

Because some arguments, as Dan Gilbert, Kevin Garnett and the rest of the characters in this sad, NBA Labor slow dance marathon are about to find out, are simply unwinnable. 

You just have to just find the middle ground, move on.  The next unwinnable argument is usually just a Sportscenter away.

(1)    On September 9, 1969, the Rolling Stones gave a free concert at Altamont Speedway in Northern California.  After several budget and location concerns, Stones’ management hired the Hell’s Angels to handle security, reportedly paying them in beer.  The concert degenerated into a Red Sox-clubhouse-in-the-8th-inning-free for all.   I’m also too young to remember it, but I watch a lot of VH1 and never miss one of their countdown shows with the word “shocking” in the title.

(2)    Actually, I was tickled with the Paul Allen thing. When the 13-billion dollar man who could buy the NBA several times over stormed the negotiations last week like Ebenezer Scrooge hoarding every last piece of coal while the rest of the league stood shivering.  Why did I love it? Because I had “Guy with the most money saying the stupidest thing” in my NBA Lockout Scavenger Hunt that day.

(3)    Sorkin’s departure from the WW in 2003 was a multi-year drama build-up not unlike Terry Francona’s with the Red Sox.  The show was almost always over-budget, Sorkin famously missed deadlines until he and Warner Brothers had to divorce.  The final scene of his final episode ending symbolically with the President walking out of the Oval, having been removed from office.  When they make the movie of the 2011 Red Sox….Kevin Costner’s Francona will exit the clubhouse the same way, except Josh Beckett will hit him in the back of a head with a half-eaten drumstick.  (Already the second footnote on the 2011 Red Sox, who will no doubt go on to shatter records for most footnotes, and fried chicken jokes inspired.)

(4)    How fast did the Kardashian marriage collapse?  This original footnote, “You watch, as these cheap shots at reality shows come back to haunt me and the Celtics sign Kris Humphries during the impending free-agent frenzy and I lose my seat on the charter to Bruce Jenner”, was out of date within 24 hours.

(5)    When Jimmy Smits decided to leave NYPD Blue in the fall of 1998, the show took us on a truly emotional roller coaster as his character Bobby Simone’s health seemed to pinball from week to week like the S&P 500, until his valiant struggle came to end, just in time for November sweeps. See, I like some non-Sorkin shows, too.

(6)    One of the true special moments of the lockout…in a tweet intended to fire back at his electronic critics, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert inadvertently fueled that fire by referring to them as “bogissists”, taking the ridicule up a notch to somewhere between Ashlee Simpson’s lip-sync and Jessica Simpson’s tuna-chicken.  But really, on this one, we should let him slide. He and Sarah Palin. Why shouldn’t we get to make up new words if they make sense?  This notion of deleting something when Microsoft puts a squiggly line under it is totally…I don’t know…ridonkulous. 

(7)    You can debate the CSI Effect, but it definitely solved one of this quarter-century’s true mysteries.  CBS’s inability to program 10pm.

(8)   There was a time that those two names didn’t seem to fit in the same sentence.  But Perry’s West Wing arc (in the final episodes of the Sorkin era), was that eyebrow-raising, Jason Bateman-first-season-of-Arrested-Development, I had no idea he could do that moment.  And add to the Studio 60 what-if list, which is headlined by what-if it had been on HBO or A&E or AMC,  how many lead Actor nominations would he have gotten if a multi-year run?

(9)    It’s true. I went to high school with Amanda Peet.  She was a cool sophomore and I was a dorky senior that was more likely to sit home on a Saturday night charting a Dwight Gooden start, but the fact remains we went to high school together.  Five years ago she got married at the school’s historic Meeting House, so now instead of being known as an historical landmark, or a cradle of 225 years of higher New York City education, it’s now thanks to Us Weekly known as the “place where Amanda Peet got married”.

(10)By Christmas, I mean every year on like December 22nd, before the NBA, seemingly to infuriate Stan Van Gundy, sends us on a cross-country trip to play on Christmas Day. My son is 17 days old, Chris Rock taught me if you have a daughter, your only job as a father is to “keep her off the pole.”  With that burden off the table, I’m choosing to raise my son to get a job where he’s not in a hotel room every Christmas watching “I Love the 80’s” marathons.

(11) Don’t hit me with Tina Fey here.  Her achieving both worldwide fame, and the honor of being one of the longest-tenured, unachievable crushes of my life, came as the result of her getting out in front of the camera, where she belonged.  Her brilliant writing didn’t bring her fame, it gave her the turn at bat, which she crushed.

(12) The asterisk here is clearly drama versus comedy. Which is point which renders the entire Studio 60-30 Rock angle that is an automatic go-to it seems in any article on the subject.  I’m confident law enforcement professionals were not nearly as interested in the accuracy of Barney Miller, than they were Andy Sipowicz.  I’m sure if they had, Abe Vigoda as like a 96-year old New York City detective would have launched a Greta van Susteren talking-head debate about AARP and federal age limits.

(13) Law I’d pass if I went from locked out play-by-play guy to head of a movie studio like Maeby Funke;  if you can’t do the accent, don’t try it.  The Boston accent isn’t easy.  Jimmy Fallon (“Noommaahhhh”) might be the only outsider who ever really nailed it.  (Honorable mention to Julianne Moore in 30 Rock among others).  Point is, who cares if Martin Sheen’s character in The Departed sounds like he’s from Boston or not?  Someone please explain this to me.  Really, explain it.  If he just does Martin Sheen, we’re all fine with that.  Instead, one of the great actors of our time tries to keep up with Leo and Jack by doing two hours of Mayor Joe Quimby.

(14) Actually he won’t.  The old joke goes the only one who could ever stop Michael Jordan, Vince Carter, etc., was Dean Smith, their college coach.  LeBron won’t get to 20,000 this year.  Billy Hunter and the NBAPA are on the case.

(15) Tweet me all you want on McCarver, I’m not budging.  I mean, I’m not an idiot I get it. I know why he drives some people nuts and even I, during one of the best World Series of my lifetime, held my breath when the Rangers’ third baseman was up, knowing we were one big hit away from Timmy dropping some Bard on us; “…a little more than Kinsler’s less than kind.”  Followed perhaps seconds later by an grunt of Joe Buck mock approval. But I’ll make that trade.  Listen to the man, he’s been on it for three decades.